Last time around, it was bruising German defender Moritz Seider who stamped his name on the NHL’s Calder Memorial Trophy, the Detroit Red Wings’ rearguard beating out dynamic Anaheim Ducks pivot Trevor Zegras and hard-nosed Toronto Maple Leafs winger Michael Bunting.
A year before that, it was Kirill Kaprizov, the Minnesota Wild winger who developed a penchant for taking over games. Go back one year further, and it was the ever-dominant Cale Makar, before he graduated to the Norris and Conn Smythe conversations.
With a new season set to begin a month from now, a new crop of fresh-faced rookies will once again vie for a place among those Calder winners, staking their claim on NHL stardom in their first chance to show what they can do at the game’s highest level.
To break down the top contenders for the 2023 Calder Trophy, we turned to Sportsnet’s Jason Bukala, who served as the Florida Panthers’ Director of Amateur Scouting for nearly a decade, and as a pro scout for the Nashville Predators before that.
Here’s a look at who he sees making waves in the upcoming season’s Calder race:
OWEN POWER, Buffalo Sabres
While today’s game isn’t short on elite, young talent, few check off quite as many boxes as 2021’s first-overall pick, Owen Power.
After a sterling run with the University of Michigan and a brief eight-game stint in the big leagues last season, the imposing Buffalo Sabers defender — who stands six-foot-six and weighs in at 213 pounds — will get his first extended taste of NHL action in 2022-23.
And in Bukala’s view, there’s a fair chance he’ll be the standout rookie we’re talking about most by the year’s end.
“My leading candidate is Owen Power — I think that’s pretty much going to be universal across most personalities that are familiar with what’s going on,” Bukala said. “Big body, he has the ability to play in all situations, mature beyond his years, can contribute on the power play. I think Buffalo is going to be a lot better this year as a team. It’ll be interesting to see what his role is in special-teams scenarios.”
“Similar to [Moritz] Seider in Detroit, this kid’s got the type of pedigree to be logging heavy, heavy minutes,” Bukala said. “And he’s got the size and the stability to handle it.”
MASON McTAVISH, Anaheim Ducks
Fresh off a dominant performance at the 2022 World Junior Championship that saw him win MVP honors, captain his team to a gold medal, and put up some historic numbers, Mason McTavish is sure to be in the running too.
Like Power, McTavish got a nine-game run at the NHL level last season — along with stints suiting up for Canada at the World Juniors and the Olympic Games, and a run to the Memorial Cup Final with the OHL’s Hamilton Bulldogs.
“Mason McTavish has just been building momentum for an extended period of time now,” Bukala said of the Ducks’ 2021 third-overall pick. “I just saw him riding the wave of momentum into Anaheim. Anaheim will probably give him an extended runway to play top-tier minutes, I would think, to start the season. And my estimation is that he’s going to take that ball and run with it.
“He’s not as flashy skill-wise as some other guys on my list, but he’s a bulldog and he’s a gamer. So I think he’s going to be transitioning to the NHL relatively seamlessly. I know he’s had a small cup of coffee already, but I’m expecting big things from him.”
“I think that Anaheim have on their hands somebody who has the potential to carry on the pedigree that Ryan Getzlaf had when he came into the league, and play the right way and have leadership ability and all that stuff,” Bukala continued. “As far as the trajectory of the franchise and the identity of the franchise, I think McTavish is a guy that is enormously important to where that team’s going.”
MARCO ROSSI, Minnesota Wild
It’s been a long road for Minnesota’s Marco Rossi since the 120-point outburst he authored for the OHL’s Ottawa 67’s back in 2019-20. After battling through a difficult bout with COVID-19, a subsequent myocarditis diagnosis, and questions of whether he’d ever again be the player he was, the soon-to-be 21-year-old finds himself back on track, and chasing his big-league dream once again.
“Marco Rossi in Minnesota’s an interesting one for me,” Bukala said, noting the young Swiss centerman is coming off a pro debut campaign that saw him put up 53 points through 63 games in the AHL. “It’s hard to score in the American League. He’s not tall, but he’s built like a fire hydrant. His detail in all three zones is reliable, and he’s got real good savvy on the power play with the puck. They’ve got some guys in Minnesota who obviously are going to thrive on the power play and Minnesota’s going to need them to score goals on the power play.”
“I think that he might be a sleeper in terms of a guy that could really draw a lot of attention in this category,” Bukala continued. “Not just for point production but for his all-around game. But certainly on the power play, I think that he’s going to get a lot of handles and he might be able to control the play in the offensive zone at the National Hockey League level right away.”
KENT JOHNSON, Columbus Blue Jackets
Like Canadian teammate McTavish, Kent Johnson heads into the 2022-23 campaign with a fair bit of confidence gained over the off-season, the 19-year-old having recently tucked home the red and white’s golden goal to clinch Canada’s World Juniors triumph at the 2022 tournament.
Now, Johnson heads into what figures to be his first full season in Columbus, as the Blue Jackets franchise as a whole undergoes an intriguing turn of the page. But while all eyes will be on Johnny Gaudreau’s first season in new colors, Johnson’s success will be just as key to the team taking a step in 2023.
“He just sees the ice, tons of skill — when you think you’ve got him contained, he makes a puck play,” Bukala said of Johnson’s game. “He’s a guy who can either slip off a check or he makes a play with the puck through you, even as a defender, finding people off the half-wall. He’s a slippery forward with an outstanding offensive brain.”
“I think that Columbus is going to be an interesting team to watch this year. Obviously, Gaudreau, (Patrik) Laine — I’m interested to see where some of these young guys fit in in their upper echelon of players and special teams.”
WILLIAM EKLUND, San Jose Sharks
Tabbed with the seventh-overall pick in 2021, 19-year-old pivot William Eklund is on the cusp of regular NHL duty for the San Jose Sharks as well. The question for the young Swede is whether he’ll be able to break out and find the success he’s capable of on a Sharks team that’s struggled as of late, and seems set for a similarly tumultuous 2022-23.
“I really like William Eklund. … I like his skill. He’s got a good quickness,” Bukala said of the Sharks prospect. “I’m not so sure about his interior game, but he’s got the skill-set to be able to produce and create through the neutral zone, both with and without the puck. He finds open space. And he’ll go to the net, and he’s got a good touch around the net.”
“My only thing with San Jose is that I don’t know if he’s not going to be an easy guy to check, just because of the depth of their forward group right now,” Bukala continued. “I’m not sold on the forward group. So he may have a harder time scoring than some other guys, just because of the state of the franchise right now. So it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”
SHANE WRIGHT and MATTY BENIERS, Seattle Kraken
Among the most recent draft class’s crop of rookies set to enter the league, plenty of attention is sure to be heaped on the shoulders of Shane Wright, who fell to Seattle at fourth-overall in the 2022 NHL Draft after a lengthy run as expected No. 1 pick.
He won’t be tasked with pulling the Kraken up alone, though — joining the OHL standout this season will be Matty Beniers, Seattle’s second-overall pick a year prior, who amassed a promising nine points in his 10-game go-round in the NHL last year.
“Shane Wright’s obviously motivated,” Bukala said. “He slipped to number four. He by all accounts has had a good summer. His development camp was very good. And he’s going to be motivated going in there, so I think that he’s going to be an interesting name to watch.
“Again, it’s just going to be, how much is he surrounded with there, and can he carry the mail, because he’s not super elite offensively. He does a lot of other things very well, so it’ll be interesting to see just how much point production the kid gets.”
“And then you’ve got Matty Beniers there, too. They might feed off each other on the power play. … Beniers and Wright, Seattle’s going to need them. That was an underwhelming year — they had a hard time scoring goals as a franchise. They’re going to be counting a lot on them to carry the mail going forward.
“It’s going to be interesting. But if Shane Wright doesn’t score a lot, I think he’ll do some of the other things, so that’s really important for Seattle as well.”
JURAJ SLAFKOVSKY, Montreal Canadiens
Which brings us to Slafkovsky, the talent who ended up snagging Wright’s first-overall crown. The Montreal Canadiens product heads into the 2022-23 season with plenty of pressure on his shoulders, too, after the organization arguably went against the grain to tab him with the No. 1 pick.
In Bukala’s view, 2022-23 might not be the season we see Slafkovsky dominate offensively. But that doesn’t mean he can’t still become a highly effective piece for Montreal in his rookie year.
“I think Slafkovsky has the potential to produce in streaks,” Bukala said of the Canadiens prospect. “I think he’s going to be a little bit streaky, but he’s going to do a lot of other things for the Habs when he’s not scoring goals or producing offense, with that size — you know, continual play along the wall, and opening up some space for guys, if he’s on the ice with (Nick) Suzuki, for example. … They’ve got Kirby Dach there now too — let’s say he plays with Dach for some reason, well you’ve got two big rigs on the line there, so that changes the look of that line.”
“He’d be a guy in my top seven or eight to keep a close eye on, not because he went first overall this year, but because of that power-forward body that looks like it should transition pretty quickly to the NHL game. I just think there’s going to be some streakiness there for his first year, so we’ll see how that goes — I think his extended career is going to be better than his first couple of years.”
JAKE SANDERSON, Ottawa Senators
The Ottawa Senators already find themselves brimming with young, dangerous offensive talent, led by the limitless potential of dynamic 2020 third-overall pick Tim Stutzle. Add in the slew of high-profile moves GM Pierre Dorion made this off-season — namely the additions of bona fide all-stars in Claude Giroux and Alex DeBrincat — and far brighter days seem on the horizon for the Sens.
And yet, the club still boasts another top-tier talent they’ve yet to even throw into the mix, in defender Jake Sanderson — the team’s fifth-overall pick from that same 2020 class. After two solid campaigns with the University of North Dakota, and a couple more with the US NTDP before that, the 20-year-old’s time appears near.
“Jake Sanderson is an elite defender,” Bukala said of the Sens rearguard. “Great skater, moves the puck, joins the rush as an extra layer, over a point-a-game at the college level, leadership. He’s coming off an injury that’s by all accounts healed up fine, so he should be able to get going right away.”
“You look at the way the defense is built there and then you look at him — their back end in Ottawa, they’ve got some agile guys who skate, and he adds to that. And the more you can roll those guys over the boards in two separate units, the better off your team is, because your team’s always playing fast and always playing to the same identity. I think Sanderson’s that way too.”
All cards supplied by The Pro Hockey Group.